Having been in Bo for several weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to get out of training and apply some of the techniques we’ve been learning. Most notably, this has meant the opportunity to get out of the city and get some real experience teaching in Salone. Our third week in Bo, we all split up; some fifty five of us into five groups, and dispersed to nearby villages no more than an hour drive away. This was to be our first time in a local school, seeing how the system worked at the rural and grassroots level.
I visited the vilage of Mamboma, about an hour drive south of Bo. We took a poda-poda, the de- facto mass transit for the country. Poda-podas are vans that somehow, implausibly, fit 15-20 people inside. These are vans the size of a Volks Wagon van. If you can visualize this strange reality, than you understand poda-podas. Comfort is laughable, and not a concern at all. The only concern is clearly how many people you can get from A to B, which is actually surprisingly economical when you consider how poor cross country traffic tends to be. Most are completely decrepit, and all of them are one bad bump on a rocky road away from a total breakdown or a flat tire. Most roads to villages are dirt with monstrous puddles. It is the rainy season- and it’s not uncommon to ford a “puddle” with your feet drenched from water pouring in through rusted holes in the undercarriage of the vehicle.
Mamboma itself was not a particularly pretty village, but the school was well designed and in decent shape. Sitting at the top of a three-way junction, the school served Mamboma as well as two other villages. We sat in on three lessons; one English, one math, one science. Although the lessons themselves were staged for our presence, it did provide crucial insight into the style of teaching in the country. I would most easily compare it to a collegiate lecture. The teacher stands in front of the class and delivers information with minimal classroom participation. Notes and important facts are provided in bulk and great detail on the chalkboard with the implication that students will copy and memorize them verbatim.
This is all a result of a serious lack of teaching aids and materials. Textbooks do exist but most schools can not afford them for any subject, so a teacher’s board work is the primary, and sometimes only source. There is a strong emphasis on rote memorization, and a total lack of critical thinking. Students are essentially taught to be textbooks themselves, not questioners and thinkers. Little collaboration exists between students, and group work- something I would say is very important at the secondary school level- is nonexistent. More often than not, students live in fear of getting an answer wrong and dealing with the resultant shame , rather than being motivated to try and think despite a correct/incorrect result.
A few days later we all got a chance to try. Once again, the fifty five of us dispersed in groups of about ten, but this time to primary and secondary schools within Bo to teach a short summer school class. Only twenty minutes for each of us, but an opportunnity for many in our group to get their first real teaching experience. My lesson was centered around a short story, and targeted to primary school kids about seven to eight years old. Everything went well with my brief lesson, and I received positive feedback from the small panel of other teachers analyzing each of our lessons and styles. My one criticism was to slow my rate of speech so as to help improve aural comprehension for the young students not yet familiar enough with English.
A week later we had another chance to test our mettle. We traveled out to the same five villages, but mixed up the rotation so that everyone went to a new one. I went to the village of Sembehun 17, seventeen miles away from Bo, and about eight miles away from Mamboma. Though only a short drive from Mamboma, it was remarkably different, a beautiful village. Very green, with a small stream running through the center of town, it was a stark contrast from the dusty brown look of Mamboma.
We met Larissa, the Salone 4 stationed I Sembehun. We were scheduled to do our lessons at the Muslim school where she taught. Our lesson lengths were scheduled for a forty minute duration, giving us all a better opportunity to expand be more thorough than the brief twenty minute lessons had a week prior. I was excited because it provided me with the chance to provide real in-class examples and participation, something unthinkable in a twenty minute lesson. I wrote a lesson on conjunctions that went very well. Some of the other teachers did not utilize their full forty minutes, and being the last one to teach I was given free reign to use the extra time, stretching my lesson to nearly an hour and providing enough examples to confidently cover the length of my lesson plan.
Even in our brief classroom situations I’ve been able to figure out what the biggest challenges will be in this environment. It will be difficult to make students more willing and ready to participate. Every school structured environment they’ve been in so far has fostered the habits of passive listening, sitting silently and copying like a scribe, rarely if ever providing insight, and speaking up only when an answer is memorized. Granted, I have only taught in Salone twice now, but there will be a lot of work to be done to facilitate more classroom participation. Positive reinforcement, incentives, stressing the value of effort and thought over memorized exactitude. It’s going to be a challenge for all of us, and one that definitely needs to be undertaken.